The Happening (2008) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel
Each new Shyamalan film over the past few years has been greeted with anticipation, and expectation. “Lady in the Water” was truly a bad movie. Yet, despite the failure his willingness to take a risk, fail, take his knocks and pick himself back up again is what great filmmakers do. Though still a relatively young man, I think Shyamalan is a great filmmaker – certainly someone with such immense talent whose films deserve their attention and scrutiny.
“The Happening” has taken a lot of knocks, but it’s a very good film – a few scenes short of great – but still a mysterious, though-provoking and sometimes visceral cinema experience. It’s not for all tastes, and most of the criticism is warranted – yet for those who enjoy quiet cerebral slow-brewing tension, Shyamalan delivers an antidote to the bloated summer blockbusters.
Like most of his films, Shyamalan likes to work within self-imposed parameters – as if he’s created his own personal set of dogma rules – stripping away the stylistic elements to put the audience in the skin of the characters without artifice. His methodology is admirable and invigorating when he succeeds.
His rules apply with “The Happening”. The situation is simple – over the eastern seaboard regular citizens suddenly start exhibiting suicidal tendencies and kill themselves with robotic-like procedure and precision. We watch as a gentle woman quietly stabs herself in the neck, a man runs himself over with a lawnmower, high rise window cleaners throw themselves from a top of a building. Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) a soft-spoken teacher, escapes the danger areas and leads his wife and the left-behind child of his best friend to safety from an explained force of nature.
As consistent with his ‘great’ films, Shyamalan never loses sight of his characters and his themes. The themes of “The Happening” are crystal clear (there’s an environmental lesson and a poignant post 9/11 theme of social cohesion) and so we never feel it’s the director jerking us around for the sake of some scares. In fact, there’s relatively few “scares” per se; instead tension is built to an emotionally-based climax. So without traditional plot-based closure it’s easy to see why “The Happening” has left many dissatisfied.
Another difficulty Shyamalan forces himself to hurdle is the lack of an antagonist. Moore and the fleeing innocents are continually trying to figure out what is going on, who is attacking them and for what reason. Midway through, a theory is deduced which is accepted by Elliot and his group. If this is the reveal of the antagonist it’s either one of the most audacious plot points to come across mainstream cinema in a while, or it’s an inspired creative decision. It’s a bit of both, but I personally saw the ‘evil presence’ in the film as an intellectual spin on classic b-movie horror – think “The Blob” meets “The Birds”.
A few key aspects prevent the film from becoming great. The acting waffles on many occasions. Mark portrays his character with Shyamalan’s typical everyman monotone cadence. But his performance is often inconsistent – he’ll go over top in one scene and understated in the next. And many of the supporting actors simply lack the chops to sell the grief and dismay of the gruesome situations. Shyamalan’s quirky humour is dolloped in, in unexpected but also welcomed moments. The film is never serious enough for a gag or two.
And there’s a major editing fiasco as well. Several scenes stand out glaringly like scenes from a bad film slotted into a great film. Imagine a chunk of “Deep Blue Sea” slotted into “Jaws”. There’s three scenes I specifically noted: 1) a montage scene in the middle of the film showing various people around the U.S. watching the events unfolding through the television 2) a gruesome death scene as seen through a PDA device 3) a lengthy television interview scene in the denouement. I can only assume Mr. Shyamalan got territorial and couldn’t ‘kill his babies’.
N. Night Shyamalan’s films often don’t sit comfortably with audiences because they aren’t genre films. Though they sit in the thriller section of the video shelves, they are far from traditional genre pictures. “The Happening” is much the same. With the extreme backlash against the man, I’d like to start a support group for fans of this film – are there any out there? Enjoy.
PS. And by the way, I loved Zooey Deschanel’s spacey performance.